Monday, December 2, 2013

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

It is fashionable, this time of year, to bitch and moan that Christmas is not what it used to be, or what it is supposed to be, or has become in one way or another sullied and denigrated.

The jeremiads range from complaints that Christmas is too commercial and consumer-oriented to hand-wringing over the excision of explicitly Christian content from our public celebrations of the season.

Some even take exception to the use of "X-mas," complaining that Christ has been "X-ed out" of Christmas -- apparently unaware that the use of the Greek chi, or X, has been a shorthand for Christ in the Christian tradition since long before Macy's had a Santa Claus. One way or another, however, we are barraged with diatribes berating us for forgetting the "reason for the season."

The real reason for the season, however, is that it's so damn dark. The Christian holiday is piggybacked onto a melange of pagan celebrations, most of them having something to do with the winter solstice. Just on the
other side of this longest night the sun slowly begins to reclaim its authority over the sky and our pagan ancestors found cause to celebrate.

For some this becomes just more evidence of the "war on Christmas," and there are always those encouraging us to forgo trees, or the use of "yuletide," or Santa, because these accoutrements are tainted by their pagan lineage.

The irony here is that the birth narratives themselves suggest construction out of the raw material of pagan mythologies. That and some bad translating: in a key prophecy in Isaiah, the Greek Septuagint uses the word for "virgin" to translate a Hebrew word meaning "young woman." This is not linguistically untenable in a world where a young woman could reasonably be assumed to be virginal, but the original context probably refers to the prophet's wife, who -- without prying too much into the prophetic personal life -- was probably not a virgin.

Jesus doesn't even get born until later in the tradition. For Paul, Jesus seems to have been "declared the Son of God by the power of his resurrection" (Rom 1:4). The writer of Hebrews evinces a similar perspective. Mark's Gospel has Jesus declared the Son of God at his baptism, 'Son of God' being a royal or messianic designation.

Only Luke and Matthew give us (somewhat conflicting) birth stories. John is bullish on pre-existence and incarnation but is silent about the actual birth. John's take on "only begotten" seems far more cosmic, and much less literal, than parthogenesis.

A cruder version of divine conception lay at the heart of Rome's etiology; mythical founders Remus and Romulus were the semidivine twin sons of a woman raped by Mars. The god Mithra was born in a cave at the winter solstice, attended by shepherds (which might explain a few things) but he was actually birthed from a rock, which seems a bit mundane (pun intended). As a mythological trope, virgin birth was not unheard of, and ancient kings -- who were often also gods -- were often assigned some kind of miraculous birth appropriate to figures of great importance.

The details are contested, of course; some take all such references to be mere copycats. The early church fathers, for whom such "signs and wonders" were exceptional but not, strictly speaking, impossible, regarded the similarities as Satanic counterfeits. The more modern C.S. Lewis cleverly argued that in Jesus, God made these mythological elements come literally true so that Christians could have bragging rights. My virgin-born savior can beat up your virgin-born savior.

The common Biblical trope for special nativities is to have a child born to a barren woman, like Hannah or Rachel, or to a woman beyond childbearing years, like Sarah -- but Luke used that one with John the Baptist, so he had to dig deeper into the collective unconscious to get Jesus into the world in something beyond the usual way.

Suffice it to say that there's a strong hint of syncretism here, and those who would excise all things pagan from our midwinter celebrations might find themselves going all Thomas Jefferson on the Biblical text itself. There is no pristine, unadulterated Christmas. If anyone should be grousing about having their holiday hijacked, it's the pagans.

The consumerism angle has some teeth to it. I am not a fan of capitalism. Contrary to the famous speech by Michael Douglas's character in Wall Street, greed is not good. It does not "work." It might be harnessed for brief moments of corporate glory but it is a lousy long-term strategy and it will destroy us. The invisible hand is giving us the finger right about now. The market is not a benevolent god.

As strongly as I feel about this, as much as I believe that if a sustainable future exists, it is a post-capitalist future, this is not a problem with Christmas. Granted, there are ways in which the Christmas buying season might put a finer point on things, laying our contradictions bare (and nobody gets trampled in a Wal-Mart on, say, St. Patrick's Day), but the problems of capitalism are not limited to Christmas, nor is the commercialization of Christmas terribly new. Christmas, like truth, was never what it used to be.

So, if we filter out those elements that are not specific to Christmas, and the grumblings of those who think the entire world should validate their belief system, what are we left with?

In the midst of the darkest time of year, we string lights and decorate with shiny things. We pay attention to children. We give each other gifts. We think about the poor and the less fortunate, and while it would be better to do this all year, at least we do it. We throw more parties, and visit more relatives. We wish each other well on a regular basis.

We invoke something called "Christmas spirit" as an excuse to momentarily shed our cynicism and look beyond our selfishness. We sing songs, and show a higher tolerance for jazz than at any other time of the year. We make cookies and drink eggnog. We make snow angels and write Christmas cards. We go to church and light candles and even the most skeptical of us are tempted to strain for a glimpse of the numinous.

Christmas makes it fashionable to talk about things like peace and love without getting strange looks. Christmas gives us the gumption to share our feelings with that person we've been admiring all year, or the fortitude to extend grace to that pain-in-the-ass down the hall.

Christmas, for all of its saccharine sentimentality, for all of its sappy sitcom send-ups of A Christmas Carol, for all of its tendency to degenerate into an ideological battleground, encourages good things in us. Does it "work"? I don't know about that.

But it beats the hell out of greed.


Kevin Beck said...

This is an excellent post. Thanks! It looks like we're on very similar wavelengths.

David Henson said...

Fucking brilliant.

India Henson said...

Will you marry me?